“They just don’t get it.”
I’ve heard many teachers say this about their students.
As an aspiring college professor, I’ve made a mental note to never, ever say this. I just try to focus on my job: improving my students’ public speaking skills. It’s a gift to influence minds in such an intimate setting, and more often than not, I find that students actually do get it.
Maybe we don’t get them.
As educators, I think we like to assume we have control of the classroom—and we do, to a certain extent. We guide students to follow the correct outline format, deduct points for going over time, and demand silence. But we also have the power to present them with messages of hope, to encourage them when they feel as if everything is falling apart.
I struggled with an eating disorder and self-harm in high school. Though I kept it hidden, I wish someone had offered me help. My struggle continued into college, where I was sexually assaulted my first semester; after that, I never really quite felt the same. I sank back into the depression I thought I had left behind. When my boyfriend and I broke up, I assumed it was because I was broken and dirty. Because I deserved it. Because sometimes I woke up in the middle of the night crying. Because I couldn’t go into a bathroom alone. Because when anyone touched me, I recoiled. Everything wonderful and loving began to crumble, as did I.
I felt like there was a reason this was all happening to me, but I also felt it was better me than someone else. I still thought I was too fat to be loved. I thought my skin was too marked to be touched. And I came to believe my body was only ever going to be appealing to people who wanted to hurt me.
This wasn’t true, of course. But I didn’t get that at the time. It was my reality, and there were days when the thought of eating a whole meal in public caused a nervous breakdown. There were nights when I had to get out of bed to check the rooms in my apartment for strangers with cruel intentions.
In some cases, some of my closest friends still didn’t understand, going so far as to call me a liar, someone seeking attention.
I tell my students there will always be these kinds of people, the people who do not believe what they have to say. In my class, we call these kinds of people The Skeptics because you feel like you have something to prove to them. In the best cases, they might encourage you to do better, to try harder. But in my life, The Skeptics were not the people who made me want to get better or try harder. For me, that has been and will always be my students.
And because I wish someone had done it for me, each chance I get I tell my students how wonderful they are. I cheer them on if they stumble through their presentations with a shaking voice because they are trying and doing what they never thought they could. I get to hear their stories and be a part of their wonderfully made lives, and sometimes that includes the tough stuff. While I am not the counselor to them, I am someone who listens. I am what our class would call The Choir: I believe in what they have to say. Because I build this relationship of trust with them, I offer them hope. I offer them hope, not just for being a better speaker, but also for having a better life, for being more than what has been done to them. My door is open, I am always available to talk, and I assure them there is no one I would rather have in my class. I even talk about TWLOHA with them, especially during high stress points in the semester. Because that’s what I wish I had been offered.
On the last day of class, when I have come to know them best, I will have to let my students go. I always imagine I will say something so eloquent that they become inspired to use their new confidence to change someone else’s life for the better. I tell them I promise to always see them as individuals, not just units filling seats. I hope I have been doing it all along.
The beautiful souls who enter my classroom may not know it, but they have saved me in so many ways. They have helped me discover my desire for teaching, patience when I thought I had none, and light in the darkness. If any of my students are reading this, thank you for helping me. You all may not ever realize it, but you did. And I will spend the rest of my life giving that back to future students. You are my hope. You are my joy. You don’t have to prove your worth to me.
I finally get it.
And I will never give up on you.